This article is spoiler-free.
I decided to make The Martian Investigations after playing through Sherlock Holmes; Consulting Detective (review; BGG) and Arkham Investigator (BGG). I was really impressed with the ways these books used the choose your own adventure format to create something intellectually challenging and thematically immersive. I figured, "Oh this will be easy. 4000 words and I'll have it finished by the weekend." I was so wrong!
|The original draft for the map of Banks, with planning notes.
- The players read through an opening scene, establishing a crime that needs to be solved.
- Players can then consult a map, a directory, the daily newspaper and perhaps some other documents (here's an example from the start of my own game)
- Players choose where they wish to visit on the map, using the above documents.
- They open a case book to the map coordinates they are interested in and are able to read a scene relating to those coordinates.
- They can do this as much as they want.
- Once they think they have solved the crime, players flip to the back of the casebook and are presented with some questions.
- They answer these questions and then read the closing scene, which includes the solution.
- They calculate a score based on their answers, the amount of places they visited, and sometimes some other variables.
This structure is not my own design. It's been used plenty of times before, like in the aforementioned two games, and other games ranging back to the 1970s (such as Gumshoe).
|The map that my first playtesters got.
Somebody got gunned down outside a New York movie theater.
Location: The Theater Ticket Booth
The clerk tells you that she saw the guy who did the shooting. He had green hair.
Location: The Train Station
You see a guy with green hair rushing to catch a train to Chicago.
Now this makes sense. If you visit the locations in reverse order, it still makes sense. However, if we try to have the player interrogate the green haired man because they were seen at the scene of the crime, then it wouldn't make sense - we can't assume the player has that knowledge.
This all seems very easy and straightforward. Until you realise that The Martian Investigations has 61 unique locations, any of which can be visited at any time. In fact, my very first playtester picked up the game, visited a location I absolutely did not expect, and immediately was given the "smoking-gun" clue, cracking the case wide open. There's a similar scene to this in Arkham Investigator where you arrive to find a police bust, almost capturing the suspect - this would have been so unsatisfying if I had visited the scene out of order.
|The first beta version.
Another challenge in this kind of writing is the delicate balancing act of giving enough clues, enough false clues, and holding enough back. The first version of The Martian Investigations was really quite difficult and required some significant deductive leaps. It was too much for the playtesters who experienced it. I had to start dropping in more clues, more interesting leads, more characters who could suggest the right direction to you, all without making things too difficult.
Other issues need to be addressed is the different kinds of playstyles. The first playtester I had just took wild leaps of faith, visiting the most unlikely of suspects. The second playtester I had was more like me, following through the most obvious links. The third playtester was a total surprise - they decided to canvas the entire neighborhood around one of the crime scenes (the case features two simultaneous crimes to solve) - and so I had to make sure the game wouldn't break under this kind of scrutiny. Another playtester found a reference to a characters first name and visited ALL the people in the directory with that first name. All of these playstyles seems legitimate to me, so this kind of game should be accommodating to them - so obviously this meant big rewrites for me.
|A cleaned up version of the map, with different colours indicating the various neighborhoods.
- Currently you cannot go back an re-interrogate a witness if you later found them to be lying.
- Sometimes the worlds of these games can feel a little static. I would like to find a way to have scenes change depending on which scenes you've already seen. For example, maybe you visit a suspect, spook them, and later find them visiting their partner in crime, warning said partner of your investigation, I would also like to have a variation where the plot moves on as you investigate, so perhaps every hour of narrative time requires you to read a set scene where another crime happens - thus you have to solve the case with a time limit.
In the end, I'm really proud of the first case for The Martian Investigations. It challenges the player to solve two cases simultaneously in an unfamiliar and hostile environment. It clocks in at 3 times my planned length - it's currently 12000 words - and has received very positive responses from playtesters. Now I'm simply waiting on reviews.
If you want a copy, you can grab one for $2 at Payhip. There's a 50c discount if you tweet or facebook it at the moment of purchase. There's also a free preview of the first 7 pages there. And don't feel like you then need to print the files out - I've designed the game so that it can be comfortably played from a tablet, PC, and some phones (you need to be able to open multiple PDF files). If you do play it, please do let me know how it goes!